Drive-by lawsuits target SWFL businesses

Author: Sam smink
Published: Updated:

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla.- Meet the Conti’s, Geraldine and Roberto.

They moved from Italy 14 years ago, and have owned and operated Conty’s Motel in Naples ever since. They say, they’ve never had a problem with customer service, until now.

In April they were slapped with a federal lawsuit, accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We are punished, and we don’t know why,” said Geraldine Conti.

The man suing them is Howard Cohan, a retired physician living in Boca Raton. During our six month investigation, WINK News found Cohan, filed 516 similar law suits in Florida, in just the last year!

27 of those lawsuits target hotels and motels in Collier County. In the suits, Cohan claims to suffer from Spinal Stenosis, which can put pain and pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, making it difficult to walk on your own. Cohan alleges discrimination, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s not true, it’s not okay, I’m sorry,” said Conti.

In the lawsuit, Cohan says Conty’s Motel didn’t have enough handicap parking spots and their swimming pool doesn’t have a handicap lift.

But the Contis say they have the required number of parking space and an engineer determined their pool was too small to support a lift.

Both parties agreed to dismiss the case, the reasons why are confidential. Still, the Conti’s legal bills are piling up.

‘”I have to spend more money, maybe $20,000 or more, in the next few months,” said Conti.

Cohan also sued the nearby Gulfcoast Inn. The owner asked a judge to throw out the suit, saying the Gulfcoast Inn was sued 13 years ago. Since a judge approved ADA changes then, they’ve been in compliance ever since.

But now the Inn faces legal expenses all over again.

“We can solve the same problem without litigation,” said Kevin Berry, who works for the Southwest Florida ADA board.

“Initially, in some ways, it was providing a service. Then it got completely out of hand,” said Berry.

Berry calls Howard Cohan a serial filer, and calls these “drive-by” lawsuits, where the plaintiff drives by a business, takes a quick look around and files a law suit. Berry says these lawsuits not only burden business owners with legal bills, but actually stigmatize the disabled.

“So a business gets sued on a drive-by lawsuit, now the next person comes in, in a wheelchair and immediately the staff goes, ‘oh no, here we go again,'” said Berry.

Berry says Howard Cohan is not an advocate. He calls him a stringer, suggesting Cohan gets paid by lawyers to file ADA lawsuits.

“They’re not doing this for free,” said Berry.

In the 516 lawsuits, Cohan says he’s a tester, someone who goes looking for potential ADA violations.
According to Berry, many of these lawsuits are settled out of court, bound by confidentiality, and the lawyers almost always get paid.

“The whole thing is, it’s a money game to these folks,” said Berry.

WINK News looked at all federal filings involving Howard Cohan. Cohan filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
The first of his 516 ADA lawsuits was six months after the first filing. He filed for bankruptcy again in 2014.

WINK News sent several letters, and made phone calls, but could not get Cohan, nor any of the three law firms he works with to talk on camera.

Eventually Cohan’s lawyer, sent a statement, denying his client is getting any money from the law firm or lawsuits. He says Cohan stand by his complaints and any settlement received goes to the lawyers fees, costs and expert fees.

The Contis say, they didn’t work hard for 14 years, to be the victims of a drive-by lawsuit.

“I don’t respect these people, they take advantage of everything, to do more money,” said Conti.

Even inside the lawsuits, Cohan admits his targets may not have known they were in violation.
Again, Cohan wouldn’t answer all of our questions, but his lawyer says Cohan personally did visit all of the hotels and motels.

Here is a statement from one of his lawyers, Gregory Sconzo:

“Mr. Cohan stands behind the complaints that have been filed against hotels who are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mr. Cohan has visited thousands of hotels, of which the large majority have been fully compliant with the guidelines that these hotels have been required to follow since either 1990 or 2010. Mr. Cohan does not receive any compensation from these ADA Compliance lawsuits whether directly from the hotels or from any law firm that represents him. Rather, what is sought is an injunction against those hotels ordering them to come into compliance with ADA Rules and Guidelines. Any settlement received is for attorneys’ fees, costs, and expert fees.”

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